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You've gotten a certificate in the mail telling you you've been chosen for a trip for two to an exotic vacation location. You simply need to call a toll-free 800 telephone number to register. But what is the hidden information behind these vacation certificates? Are they good deals?

What do you need to know about vacation certificates?

What is required to use your vacation certificates varies quite widely. Some vacation certificates require you to find your own airfare; others include free airfare and a cruise, or give you a buy-one-get-one-free offer; others allow you hotel or resort lodging for a certain number of nights; and others will even give you certificates for meals at attractions and restaurants. You are usually told to give three to five different dates during which you'd want to take your vacation and must tell the offering company of your intentions at least a month in advance.

The catch is with these companies that you may be required to make a purchase of a certain product or attend a meeting at which you'll be offered to buy a resort timeshare. Another catch may be that you'll have to pay a handling fee or deposit that could be as much as $100.

What do you need to check for?
• Look out for hidden costs. Get the agreement fully in writing before you agree to go. Make sure you know what exactly you'll be responsible for.
• Check with the travel agent. Know whether your trip will truly fully be funded by the company. Sometimes a vacation certificate offer will include the airfare for one person, but the second needs to pay for the trip. Know this ahead of time, so you don't get stuck paying a hefty unexpected airfare bill the day of your intended flight.
• Check out the company. Do research on the company. Ask the state's consumer protection agencies, including the state's secretary of state office, the local Better Business Bureau, and the Federal Trade Commission, whether they've had any reports of fraud or improper advertising.
• If you're told the travel is free, make sure you know if you can make the travel arrangements through your own travel agent, or if you have to make the plans through someone specific.